Pakistanis were once known for their generosity. The 2005 earthquake and the severe 2010 floods saw ordinary Pakistanis rushing from Karachi to Khyber, laden with food, tents, blankets and medicine to aid the survivors. Till recently, every calamity that has struck Pakistan has seen the best of its citizens, who have stood up to be counted in extending support to their brothers and sisters in distress, contributing magnanimously, even beyond their capacity.
Unfortunately, the catastrophe that struck tourists in Murree and adjoining areas has shown the obverse side of human nature. A record number of 134,000 vehicles were stuck in the snowstorm that hit the hill resort and trapped visitors in their vehicles, buried under mounds of snow for nearly twenty-four hours. According to official count, twenty-two people lost their lives. The government has to bear the responsibility of negligence in not stopping the mad rush of tourists heading toward the hill station to enjoy the snow, way beyond the capacity of the holiday resort and not adequately warning the people of the impending disaster that was to befall them.
The government also did not react fast enough to rescue the stranded people, who were sending SOS messages on their cell phones. Timely action could have saved these precious lives. The Army and Air Force, who were in the forefront in the belated rescue attempts also need to be mentioned. Numerous units of the forces are located in the area, and they could easily have deployed heavy machinery and rescue vehicles to assist the stranded souls instead of being called into action at a later stage. However, it is noteworthy that the armed forces cannot act without being called in aid of civil power. The government should have taken the initiative of mobilising the military much earlier. When they arrived in the disaster zone, they appeared like angels of mercy, digging out people trapped in their cars, taking them to the safety of mosques, their own messes and even houses which were not occupied. They served the victims food and medicine along with warm blankets.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was conspicuous, because of its absence and lack of action. Usually parading around in large four-wheel drive luxury vehicles, the NDMA is like a white elephant in times of calamities or catastrophe, in this case, a disaster zone only a crow’s flight from the capital.
The worst behaviour was demonstrated by the locals. They tried to exploit the situation and behaved in a coldblooded manner, trying to extort the maximum from the hapless tourists. Eyewitnesses have brought attention to incidents of locals selling chains for car tyres at exorbitant prices, demanding heavy charges for pushing the cars as the snowstorm wreaked havoc. Ordinary hotels were charging around Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000 per room due to which people were forced to spend the night in cars which became a major cause of fatalities. A one-litre water bottle was being offered for a thousand rupees, while a small loaf of bread was sold for 800 rupees. In numerous instances, having run short of cash, women offered to barter food supplies or hotel rooms in exchange for their jewellery. Apart from these cases of heartless behaviour, numerous cases of vandalising and valuables being stolen from cars in which their occupants had died, have been reported.
The tragic aspect is that the vehicles were stranded in the main populated area and not some wilderness. The local population, instead of being callous, could have come to the rescue of the people in distress. Unfortunately, even the locals who tried to help were handicapped by the lack of resources.
The hotel owners, who had surplus rooms because numerous people did not show up, could have accommodated the tourists. Even their lobbies and halls could have been used to shelter them but alas, blinded by greed they ignored the frantic pleas for help. If the Armed Forces had not been pushed into the rescue operation, the number of deaths would have been much higher.
While the government is being lambasted for encouraging tourism and being tardy in coming to the aid of its marooned citizens, the political parties in the opposition are not wasting any time in firing broadsides at those occupying the corridors of power. It is ludicrous that a former Prime Minister, whose political constituency is located in the disaster area, is busy denigrating the ruling junta.
The fact is that with successive political leaders indulging in exploitation, perpetuating sleaze and graft, corruption appears to be becoming an acceptable norm. Dishonesty and fraud have become so rampant that it is not just the politicians but the bureaucracy, civil servants, business community and ordinary citizens, who indulge in committing acts of deception and swindle. The shameful insensitivity is not surprising; after all they are part of the same society, which has repeatedly given rise to dreadful incidents like the Sialkot lynching.
Some armchair pundits are busy quoting examples from cold climates in Canada, the US or Europe, where people are given lessons in how to survive in extreme conditions, especially if they are trapped outdoors. They forget that the residents of our Northern Areas or Murree and the Galiyat have ample information on survival techniques. One example from the west, that merits being quoted as a lesson in humanity is that of Candice Payne, a 34-year-old woman of coloured origin in Chicago. In 2019, when a dangerous polar vortex brought the mercury down to 22 degrees below zero, she realized that the homeless persons of her native hometown would not survive the life-threatening sub-zero temperatures. Ms. Payne decided to use her own credit card to rent 30 hotel rooms to shelter the freezing homeless persons. Seeking support from fellow good-Samaritans, who decided to pitch in, she was able to secure 72 rooms for five nights, providing refuge, food and shelter to 122 people.
Contrast this with the lack of compassion displayed by some federal ministers and senators, who were attending an event for youth in Islamabad when news of the tragedy at Murree and adjoining areas was being flashed on national and international media. UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed condolence over the tragic loss of lives in Murree, but our government officials continued enjoying the event, remaining oblivious to the grief being felt by the tourists only a few kilometres away. The Interior Minister did end up at the snowy graves to direct traffic, while the Chief Minister flew in a helicopter the next day to announce compensation for the families of the victims but an expression of remorse by the officials at the highest level by visiting homes or joining the funeral prayers would have helped allay the pain.
Has the moral decline sunk to such depths that we have forgotten the basic diktats of humanity? If we do not mend our ways to strengthen our moral fibre, then we are heading towards an even bigger disaster. May Allah help us!
The writer is a former Group Captain PAF and an author